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L.A. Gorilla on Loan to Atlanta Zoo Found Dead

Times Staff Writer

Caesar, a silverback gorilla lent by the Los Angeles Zoo to Zoo Atlanta for breeding, was found dead Tuesday in his sleeping quarters, weeks after a successful public debut and a series of encounters with young female gorillas, Zoo Atlanta officials said.

Zookeepers last saw Caesar alive at 2:05 p.m., “alert and resting” and seemingly on the mend after a gastrointestinal problem he developed a week ago, according to Helen Bioty, director of communications for Zoo Atlanta.

“Five minutes later, two staff veterinarians on scheduled rounds found him not breathing,” Bioty said. Their attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. “At this point, the cause of death is unknown,” she said.

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Caesar, who would have turned 27 on June 1, was being moved Tuesday to the Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emery University in Atlanta for a necropsy. Captive gorillas generally live into their late 30s or early 40s.

The sudden death of the 26-year-old western lowland gorilla who captivated his handlers and visitors left staffers at both zoos shaken.

“The grief here is overwhelming,” Bioty said. “He was so warm and gentle that you gravitated toward him.”

Zoo staffers in Atlanta doted on the 525-pound great ape, who had his own page on the zoo’s website. Charles Horton, curator of primates, watched over his new charge as Caesar became accustomed to his new home. Horton sometimes tossed him an orange that the gorilla caught like a seasoned shortstop.

Jennie McNary, L.A. Zoo curator of mammals, spent nearly every day last summer with Caesar.

“I’m devastated,” she said Tuesday. “It’s totally unexpected and we were all hoping for so much. I really thought this would be his opportunity to show everyone what he’s all about. This was going to be his opportunity to be a breeding silverback male and have a family of his own.”

Caesar, who earned his name from his delivery by Caesarian section, was born at the L.A. Zoo and spent his entire life there until last August, when he was shipped via a FedEx plane to Zoo Atlanta, where officials hoped he would sire babies.

He made his public debut on a Saturday in late March. “Hail Caesar!” day drew 7,000 visitors to the zoo, instead of the usual 1,000 or 2,000 daily visitors, Bioty said. Zoo Atlanta had turned one of its male gorillas, Willie B., now deceased, into a star attraction. Officials had hoped Caesar would take his place, if not as a celebrity, then as a breeder.

Concerns about Caesar’s health were first raised a year ago. During a physical exam, which was administered under anesthesia, Caesar briefly stopped breathing. Deciding they would try to avoid putting him under anesthesia for his move to Atlanta, zoo officials spent most of last summer training him to walk into a crate that would be used to transport him.

Meanwhile, Caesar had been put on a diet and by this spring he had dropped 150 pounds, weighing in at a fit 525.

He arrived in Atlanta in late August and spent his first six months in medical quarantine. “We go an extra step to guard against Hepatitis B, which is a virus common in primates,” Bioty said. Zoo Atlanta has 23 gorillas, one of the largest collections of the great apes in North America.

At his last physical two months ago, Bioty said, “Everything checked out fine.”

Zoo Atlanta started introducing Caesar to female gorillas several weeks ago, a delicate process that was taking place in private quarters away from his public exhibit.

As the offspring of gorillas caught in the wild, Caesar was a genetic prize for zoos trying to diversify their animal populations. Zoo Atlanta sent photos back to Los Angeles Zoo officials showing him socializing with females.

“From the pictures, it looked like they were getting along really well,” McNary said. “He looked relaxed and calm. It was nice to see him with girls.”

Both zoos hoped that Caesar, who never had any carnal success with female gorillas at the L.A. Zoo, would mate with some of Atlanta’s females.

Caesar was introduced first to adolescent females because they were more interested and less aggressive than the adult females, according to Bioty. The older females might have been more threatening because they were used to being in charge of the group, Bioty said. Caesar had yet to breed, officials said.

A week ago, he developed diarrhea and was treated by veterinarians and allowed to rest in private. Interaction with the females was temporarily stopped while he recuperated.

Zoos routinely loan animals to other zoos for breeding. The agreement between the L.A. and Atlanta zoos specified which institution would receive any progeny. Usually, McNary said, “the owner of the female ends up with the first offspring; the owner of the male ends up with the second offspring.”

Both zoos had expected Caesar to remain in Atlanta if he were successful at breeding.

The L.A. Zoo carried no specific insurance policy on Caesar and did not expect any financial compensation from Zoo Atlanta, McNary said.

“In the big scheme of things, ownership isn’t an issue,” she said. “We’re just trying to ensure survival of the species.”


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